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.Iranian Religions & Cosmology: Zoroastrianism



By: Mansour Shaki


In Mazdean cosmogony two diverse accounts are presented regarding the elements of the material world, the traditional and the syncretic. Both proclaim creation to be an emanation from the divine essence, the Endless Light (asar rôšnîh), through the omnipresent fire. The traditional accounts are set out mainly in the first and third chapters of the Bundahišn (q.v.). The first chapter is a general description of the creation of the material world in seven chronological stages: the sky (âsmân), water (âb), the earth (zamîg), plants (urwar), the lone-created bull (gôspand, i.e., cattle), man (mardôm), and a flame (xwarrag) of fire (Bundahišn 1.35). The missing air (wâd), an indispensible element to life (gyân), is provided through a supplementary creation "to foster and keep the water, the plants, and the kine, and the Blessed man and all things that are" (ibid.; tr. Zaehner, p. 318). In another version of the myth, which is comparable to the sequence of the Amahrspands, the seventh creation is Ohrmazd himself (Bundahišn 1.42). The missing wây (air, space, and atmosphere and the dagrand xwadây "long self-existing divinity"), not reckoned among the sacred heptad, is created through the essence of the spirit of "the form of Fire" (âtaxš kerb, < Av. âƒrô. k?hrp, Mid. Pers. translit. âsrô-kerpa; Dênkard, ed. Madan, I, p. 349; Duchesne-Guillemin, p. 14) to be used as an aide in the act of creation (Bundahišn 1.26). According to yet another myth, only six creations are fashioned in the six gâhânbârs (q.v.), ending with Gayômart, representing man (ibid., 1.43-58). In a curiously inconsistent account, the Bundahišn mentions six creations, and omits fire. These creations are derived from the essence of the sky, perhaps to emphasize the preeminently creative power of the firmament (ibid., 1.53-58; tr. Zaehner, pp. 283-84). The Pahlavî Rivayat, in what seems to be an arbitrary revision of the myth by the clergy, with a view to stressing the emanative nature of the creation from the divine essence, states that Ohrmazd, after fashioning the creations from a flame of fire (xwarrag î âtaxš) which had been derived from the Endless Light, placed them in his body; he emanated them there from after 3,000 years: the sky from his head, the earth from his feet, water from his tears, plants from his hair, the bull from his right hand, fire from his mind, and man, emitted as a seed into Spandârmad, the goddess of the earth, from the clay of which Gayômart was made (Pahlavi Rivayat, ed. Dhabar, pp. 126-37; Nyberg, Manual I, pp. 92-95; Zaehner, pp. 361-63).

The Yašt 19.16-18 considers the Amahrspands to be the creators, fashioners, and guardians of the creations of Ahura Mazdâ (q.v.). This text divulges the great antiquity of the doctrine of the six/seven creations, perhaps established before Zoroaster's day and later altered and revised in the form handed down in Middle Persian books (Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, p. 146). Therefore, the Bundahišn evidently evokes an ancient tradition when it proclaims that each creation was patronized by one of the Amahrspands: man by Ohrmazd, cattle by Wahman, fire by Ardwahišt, metals by Šahrewar, earth by Spandârmad, water by Hordâd, and plants by Amurd@ad (Bundahišn 3.12-19; tr. Zaehner, pp. 334-36; Zâdspram 35.1; Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, p. 204).

The first conscious attempt to blend the Greek cosmogonical doctrine with various traditional Iranian myths seems to be the following, rather misplaced, account included among the traditional teachings of the Bundahišn. It states that Ohrmazd fashioned from the Endless Light fire, from fire air, from air water, and from water earth (Bundahišn 1.41). The four Empedoclean elements replacing the traditional heptad are, nevertheless, considered emanations from the Endless Light through fire, the embodiment of Being. The passage continues with a wholly new theory, reminiscent of Thales, that "the primal principle of all things is a drop of water (âb srišk-ê), except the primal seed (tôhm) of man and cattle, for that seed is from the essence of fire" (ibid., 1.41).

The four elements attributed to Empedocles were from ancient times deified by the Iranians, who offered them sacrifice and prayers. Herodotus (1.131) observes that "the Persians offer sacrifice to the whole circle of heaven . . . and to the sun and moon and earth and fire and water and winds. These are the only gods to whom they have ever sacrificed from the beginning." The nature-worship cults of the Magi known to Herodotus would not have escaped the keen attention of his contemporary Empedocles, whose conception of the four elements may have been inspired by the widely known veneration the Persians paid them. Be that as it may, later, either during the Parthian period, when the Persians commonly were acquainted with Greek culture, or early under the Sasanians, it was the Persians who adopted part of the Greek philosophical and cosmogonical principles, including the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air, which they called zahag (lit., embryo, offspring, generated), and tôhmag (lit., seed), and their forms (dêsag "qualities, or quiddities"), propounded by Aristotle (pp. xxii-xxiii, 28; Filosofski institut, I, chap. 6, sec. 7), thereby lending to the ancient myth of creation a presumably enlightened foundation (Dênkard, ed. Madan, I, p. 412; Shaki, 1970, p. 289). Although the four elements are viewed in Middle Persian philosophical texts as natural phenomena acting by fate, i.e., necessity, they are treated as objects of veneration when regarded as parts of creation (Boyce, 1979, p. 119). According to an anonymous Syriac text, fire, water, earth, and atmosphere (wây "air") were revered by the Persians as gods (ed. H. S. Nyberg, JA 214, 1929, pp. 238-41). However, in the subsequent incongruous syncretism the Magi faced the dilemma of reconciling the ahuric qualities of the hot (fire) and the moist (water) with the profane or daevic cold and dry, although Aristotle (Filosofski institut, ibid.) identifies the latter as the qualities of the earth revered by Zoroastrians. The Mazdean sages had to resolve this vexing problem by modifying the Aristotelian theory by ignoring the presence of the cold and the dry (the nature of Ahriman) in the first phase of the becoming, Being (bawišn). Thus, they identified Being, the primal becoming, with the hot-moist (the very essence of Ohrmazd), whose first matter is the four elements fire, water, earth, and air, considered to be the last pure substances (abdom mâdag pâlûdag; Dênkard, ed. Madan, I, p. 203) in the genesis of the material world. For Aristotle (p. 28) the hot-moist (garm-xwêd) is the substantial form only of the element air (wâdômand). The mixture (gumêzišn), which is the material world (gêtîg), develops subsequently through the admixture of pure elements with the daevic cold and dry. The Škand-Gumânîg (2.11-14) clearly states that "all corruption (wišôbišn) originates from the complexions, composed of the hot, cold, dry, and moist, which oppose and destroy each other, since the corruption of bodies originates from the perpetual fight of the hot with the cold and the dry with the moist."

The ideal (mênôg) as well as the material (gêtîg) aspects of the three centers of purity, i.e., fire, water, and earth, are considered to be "maintainers of the nature" (dârâg xêm) of the heavenly glory (xawarrah; Dênkard I, p. 347). This Mazdean postulate may be compared with the Mazdakite teaching that the agents of good and evil (modabber al-kòayr and modabber al-šarr) proceed, respectively, from the pure (light) and impure (dark) constituents of these three elements. The bibliographer Abû ´Èsâ Mohammad Warrâq, (Šahrestânî, p. 193) unaware of this theory, unwarrantedly concluded that Mazdak had recognized only three elements, namely, fire, water and earth (Shaki, 1985, pp. 528-31).

Although wây (atmosphere, space, air) and wâd (air, wind, breath) are quite distinct, they merge in their capacity as the gyân (breath-soul). The Dênkard (ed. Madan, pt. I, p. 278) on the worldly function of y the Good (Wây î weh), which has a counterpart in Wây the Evil (Wây î wattar), states: "That which quickens the world and is the breath-soul of the living things is the divine (*abargar, lit. 'supreme being'), . . . fiery-wind which vivifies the body of man"— a concept evidently induced by the Greek psyche "breath."

A unique syncretic text of the Dênkard dealing with the creation of the world presents in corrupt forms two Middle Persian terms for primal principles adapted from the corresponding terms in Greek. Blending traditional tenets with Neo-Platonic doctrine, the passage recounts that the creator first fashions from the Endless Light the all-embracing form of fire (âsrô-kerp), which emanates two instruments of equal creative powers: the Spirit of the Power of the Soul (mênôg î waxš nêrôg) and the Spirit of the Power of Nature (mênôg î chihr nêrôg). The two hypostases conjointly fashion the essence of the cosmic substance, the most subtle very self of matter (dâramagtom gêtîg grîw), whose name in Avestan is dust (*gard) and in the language of the world (i.e., Greek), "*chaos." From this amorphous dust (chaos) then develops stwwkwn, which seems to be a corrupt Greek, stoicheîon (element), analogous with the Arabic term ostoqos. After the stages of formation and expansion, with the participation of the Spirit of the Power of the Soul, the firmament (spihr) develops. From the firmament arises Being par excellence, the hot-moist, the form and essence of air (garm-xwêd wâdômand). With the assistance of the Spirit of the Power of the Soul, the firmament emanates the substratum of the elements (tôhmagân tôhmag, lit. "seed of seeds," corresponding to the Greek hu‚lê), from which derive the elements (zahagân), as the first substance of Being (bawišn; Dênkard I, pp. 349-50; Shaki, 1970, pp. 283-86; idem, 1984, pp. 100-102). 


Aristotle, On Man in the Universe, ed. L. Ropes Loomis, New York, 1943. 

M. Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London, 1979. Bundahišn (TD). 

J. Duchesne-Guillemin, "A Form of Fire," in Unvala Memorial Volume, Bombay, 1964, pp. 14-17. 

Filosofski institut, Istoriya filosofi, Moscow, 1941. 

J. de Menasce, ed. and tr., Le troisieàme livre du Dênkart, Paris, 1973. 

Idem, ed. and tr., Š, Fribourg, 1945. 

M. Shaki, "Some Basic Tenets of the Eclectic Metaphysics of the Dênkart," Archív Orienta‚lní 38, 1970, pp. 277-312. 

Idem, "A Few Philosophical and Cosmogonical Chapters of the Dênkart," ibid., 41, 1973, pp. 133-64. 

Idem, "A Few Unrecognized Middle Persian Terms and Phrases," Middle Iranian Studies, ed. W. Skalmowski and A. Van Tongerloo, Leuven, 1984, pp. 95-102. 

Idem, "The Cosmogonical and Cosmological Teachings of Mazdak," Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce, Acta Iranica 25, Leiden, 1985, pp. 527-43. 

R. C. Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, Oxford, 1955.


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